Mixed Greens: Different Views of Corporate Sustainability

May 23rd, 2016 | By | Category: Sustainability

EHS Journal - Lettuce by Ronaldo Taveira

Two different views of corporate sustainability collided in my inbox last week.

One email said that Freya Williams will speak at the US Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD)/World BCSD/Yale meeting next month. Freya Williams’ Green Giants book argues persuasively that business sustainability and business strategy have to be one and the same, not two competing directions.  She details seven businesses that have created great “win-win” outcomes, companies growing their business by integrating sustainability issues into core business strategy. She offers great examples and lessons, describing these leaders’ “epiphanies” and how those translated into business strategy and process.

A second email came from a friend and former client who now works for a regional service company nearing $1b in annual revenue. The email said:

I am trying to locate an article … directed at the executive level, indicating why they should care about sustainability.  This should probably be old news but in [this] sector that is where we are.  We use a lot of water but are recycling and the conversation about climate change doesn’t have a day-to-day impact (at least not yet)…. [T]he Harvard Business stuff and other articles would almost certainly leave our executives shaking their heads.

That friend is a Green Whisperer, helping to nudge business leaders toward awareness and progress.  That company’s leaders are unlikely to be Green Giants in any foreseeable future.  They are not likely to make game-changing transformational leaps requiring career-threatening courage, unyielding commitment, and contrarian tendencies (characteristics Williams cites).

Green Giants are great exceptions but not the norm.  Let’s use reporting as an example.  I certainly don’t think reporting is the definition of sustainability progress, but it is an indicator of effort.  Freya Williams points out that “95 percent of the largest 250 companies in the world now [produce] a sustainability report,” but:

Beyond that group, though, the news is less good. First-generation sustainability reporting — the process of reporting on employee turnover, energy, greenhouse gases, lost-time injury rate, payroll, waste, and water is still limited to just 3 percent of the world’s largest 3,972 listed companies and 0.04 percent of the world’s small listed companies.

The reality of corporate sustainability is that we have to have a lot of different types of “greens.”  We certainly need the leaders, the disrupters, the Green Giants. Let’s recognize, applaud, and learn from them. We also need the Green Whisperers. They are not blessed with Green Giants as bosses. They toil in the trenches, trying to move the majority of companies in the right direction.  They deal with the hard truth that epiphany is not an easily-reproducible management process.

We also need Green Lions, who take the lead and charge ahead, leading from the middle.  GM’s John Bradburn is a great example, leading his company’s zero waste effort, driving innovation and material reuse and cost savings all at once.

And we need to nurture the Green Shoots, the game-changing ideas that may take years of hard work, nurturing and perseverance before they start to sprout.  The US BCSD’s Materials Marketplace is a great example. After more than a decade of small experiments in making the circular economy real, the Materials Marketplace is now sprouting in Austin and other locations around the US and winning international attention.

We’re bringing a lot of these different greens together in one big salad bowl, a hands-on session in New Haven next month (June 14-15 2016). We’ll have the perspectives of Green Giants and Green Lions, Green Whisperers and Green Shoots.  We’ll see what they can learn from each other, and what they can create together.  Come join us there, and see what you can get from — and add to — the mix.


About the Author

Scott Nadler is Founding Principal at Nadler Strategies LLC, providing practical strategy and sustainability consulting, facilitation, and executive coaching. Scott is also Program Director with the US Business Council for Sustainable Development, an action-oriented business association using collaborative projects, platforms, and partnerships to develop and implement solutions to sustainability challenges in the US. Current programs address ecosystems, energy, materials, and water challenges. Scott’s experience includes sustainability, environment, development, real estate, transportation, regulation, business-to-business (B2B) sales and customer service, and international collaboration. His approach is shaped by 40 years of hands-on experience building, leading, and turning around organizations and supporting senior executives in both the private and public sectors.

This post first appeared on Nadler Strategy LLC under the title “Mixed Greens: Green Giants, Green Shoots, Green Lions and Green Whisperers.”


Photograph: Lettuce by Ronaldo Taveira.


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